I did something I would have thought impossible before it happened: I made my 15-year-old daughter laugh.
Madeline and I were sitting in our living room. One of our cats, Tootsie, sauntered into the room and started scratching at her post in the corner. I looked at Tootsie and said something funny to cheer her on, as though she was training for a fight and working a speed bag.
To my surprise, I heard a giggle. I looked at Maddie, and her face was lit up with laughter and amusement.
“What are you laughing at?” I asked her.
She was scrolling on her phone, so I figured she had either seen something funny or one of her friends had said something hilarious in a text. The idea that I had been the one to make her laugh never even entered my mind.
“You,” Maddie replied. “What you said to Tootsie.”
I could have died right there, a happy man whose mission in life had been fulfilled and was now at peace. For years, ever since she turned into a teenager, I have labored overtime to make my daughter laugh. I can probably count the number of times I’ve done it on one finger.
Even better, I might be making Maddie laugh on the inside too. I picked up Maddie and her friend after school the other day. Her friend made a reference to a gag I have going with Maddie. I took this to mean that Maddie finds my humor amusing enough to share with others. I chose to believe this over the notion that Maddie might have instead told her friend, “My father is driving me crazy with his dumb jokes.”
Or “Dad Jokes,” as they are evidently called. That’s a fairly new term, right up there with “Dad Bod,” which is used to describe a male physique that is slim enough but not outright lean or toned. There is also “Dad Jeans,” which Google describes as an “unflattering, high-waisted and shapeless style of jeans often worn by middle-aged men.” You know, like the pair I’m wearing as I type these words.
According to Google, a Dad Joke is an “unoriginal and unfunny joke of a type supposedly told by middle-aged or older men.” I prefer this definition, from the Urban Dictionary, which describes a Dad Joke as “an indescribably cheesy or dumb joke made by a father to his children.”
My father told Dad Jokes.
“Why did Donald duck?” my father once asked me at the dinner table when I was six or seven.
“Why did Donald Duck what?” I replied.
“Gary, don’t get him riled up,” Mom warned Dad.
“Why did Donald duck?”
“Why did Donald Duck what, Dad?” I pressed. “How can I tell you why Donald Duck did what he did if you don’t tell me what he did?”
Dad and I went back and forth like this for at least five minutes, with Dad experiencing boundless glee as I continued to get flustered and red-faced. Eventually, Dad relented and gave the answer.
“Because he didn’t want to get hit.”
I was not satisfied. I still insisted Dad had not given me enough information to answer his question. It took me a while to realize that Dad’s question had simply involved a guy named Donald, who had ducked, so as to not get hit, and not Donald Duck, the cranky Disney character.
My daughter has this little thingamabob. For the purposes of this story, let’s call him Bob for short. It’s a little orange guy with a big smile, hair like Beaker the Muppet, and eyes that pop out a bit when you squeeze him. This thing is all of an inch or two tall. He’s just a head and two arms, with both thumbs sticking up. He might be some kind of stress ball that you’re supposed to squeeze to relieve tension or anxiety. No idea where Maddie got him.
One day, I put Bob on top of my head and walked into Maddie’s room. I asked her if she had seen Bob around. She looked up, saw him on my head, stifled a smile, and said no. I thanked her and told her that I had been looking for him and had no idea “off the top of my head” where he was.
A day or so later, I tucked Bob into the breast pocket of my shirt and approached Maddie again. I asked her if she had seen Bob. She looked up from her phone, spotted him sticking out of my shirt, and said no. I thanked her and asked her to let me know if she sees him. “He’s very close to my heart, you know,” I told her.
Yet another day, I put Bob on my head again and slipped my winter hat over him. I looked like a Conehead. I asked Maddie if she had found Bob yet. She looked at my oddly triangular hat and shook her head. “Well, okay,” I replied. “If you find him, don’t tell anyone, okay? Keep it under your hat until you can let me know.”
On yet another occasion, I walked up to Maddie as she lounged and played on her phone and asked her yet again if she had seen Bob. She told me no.
“I’ve been looking for him for days,” I sighed and told Maddie.
“I know, Dad.”
“If you find him, please let me know,” I said. “I’d like to put this behind me.”
Then I turned around and walked way. Maddie saw Bob sticking out of the back pocket of my Dad Jeans.
These are the jokes Maddie apparently told her friend when I picked the two of them up at school the other day.
“Did you ever find your orange guy?” Maddie’s friend asked.
“Nope,” I chuckled and said.
“I hear he has been framed,” Maddie’s friend said.
I knew what this was: a hint. Maddie had her friend over the other day, and they had hid Bob on me. I looked for Bob but could not find him. The next day, Maddie gave me another hint, provided to her by her friend.
“You need to try to detect where he is,” Maddie said.
Ah. That’s all I needed. No game of Twenty Questions necessary for me. I looked underneath the smoke detector in our kitchen. There he was. Bob was sitting atop a framed painting on the wall.
I looked at Bob and smiled. I cherished this goofy connection with my daughter. I also felt an enormous sense of accomplishment, a legacy in the making. I had created something new – a subset of the Dad Joke.
The Running Dad Joke.
Shawn P. Sullivan is an award-winning columnist and the author of “Islands in the Chaotic Ocean of Life,” a memoir that is available online at Amazon.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.